Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, is hoping that Congress will take him up on the offer to just let him write any potential facial recognition laws that could interfere with the rollout of Amazon’s Rekognition tech, Recode reported on Wednesday.
According to Recode, Bezos dropped news that Amazon’s “public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations” in remarks to reporters after its big September hardware event in Seattle (during which the company made the unconvincing case that it is pivoting to privacy). Bezos apparently hopes that Congress will find Amazon’s proposed regulations amenable… or otherwise be swayed by its army of lobbyists.
“Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations; it makes a lot of sense to regulate that,” Bezos said in response to a reporter’s question.
The idea is that Amazon will write its own draft of what it thinks federal legislation should look like, and it will then pitch lawmakers to adopt as much of it as possible.
“It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it,” Bezos added. “But, at the same time, there’s also potential for abuses of that kind of technology, so you do want regulations. It’s a classic dual-use kind of technology.”
Bezos sagely added, “[You can] have good things or you can have bad things.”
Bezos did not elaborate, according to Recode, but Amazon Vice President of Global Public Policy Michael Punke did publish some ideas on the matter in February 2019 on an Amazon blog. These mostly amounted to suggestions that police using the technology use human review of facial recognition results before making arrests, as well as issue transparency reports and post signage where the technology is being used.
The “dual-use” purpose of facial recognition tech that Bezos is referring to could be less euphemistically compared to the dystopian mass surveillance environment already reportedly emerging under the authoritarian Chinese government. It also does not take a genius to infer that when Bezos mentioned not wanting to “put the brakes on it,” he means putting the brakes on Rekognition. Amazon has already sold that tech to cops in Oregon and Florida, as well as reportedly pitched it to the fine folks at Immigration and Customs Enforcement who are putting tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in concentration camps.
There is ample reason that Congress might, in fact, want to “put the brakes” on Rekognition and projects like it.
A short list might include Rekognition misidentifying 28 members of Congress as criminals, reports it is plagued by racial and gender bias, Amazon’s admission it does not and can not control abuse by customers, its seeming plans to integrate the software into home surveillance systems, and the fact that one of its most recent milestones was identifying expressions of terror on people’s faces. Amazon’s own employees have protested Rekognition and Amazon Web Services’ other contracts with law enforcement. Orlando cops ditched their Rekognition contract after finding it rife with bugs. There’s also the inconvenience of the ongoing Department of Justice antitrust investigation into Amazon’s business practices, which should make anyone wary of the company’s intentions.
In any case, letting Amazon write the laws that will govern the use of its own software would be the opposite of unprecedented. Given the U.S. government’s track record on regulating Big Tech and the uncertainty of whether that pendulum will ever swing in the other direction, Bezos may find a receptive audience.